Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Speak Memory’ BookMarked by Sven Birkerts 2020
Let me set the stage as follows: 1)Vladimir Nabokov is one of my very favorite authors 2)I’ve read nearly all of his novels and short stories and much of his literary criticism. 3)I’ve read his memoir, ‘Speak, Memory’, at least three times and its opening sentence is among the best ever written. 4)I spent an hour in the entomology section of the Harvard Museum of Natural History last month viewing the Nabokov Collection of butterflies and moths. In short, I’m obsessed with this Russian-American writer.
So, evidently is Sven Birkerts, the editor of the literary review Agni at Boston University, and an established literary critic. Working on his own memoir, Birkerts chose to dive deep into Nabokov’s because Nabokov was ‘obsessively occupied with time, with memory, and with the search for meaningful patterns in his life.’, themes which are central to Birkerts’ work as well. He praises the “dark deight of Nabokov’s prose…language used with inventive accuracy in his masterful style… the lyricism, the unwinding brilliance of the sentences, the atmospheres, the coloration of its many nostalgias.”
I enjoyed this book, dry as it could be in some sections, because it articulated many of the feelings I’ve had while reading Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, ‘Pale Fire’, ‘Pnin’, ‘The Defense’, ‘The Gift’ and his many short stories. The importance of detail, the continuity of awareness, the creation of importance by context, the centrality of exile and his longing for return in his life and writings—all of these are explored in this book in which Birkerts concludes that “The memoir offers a literarily amplified version of the man, but one can read through the amplificatios and winnow out the camouflaged self—-the self that would go about eliding, foreshortening, and magnifying in just these ways,”
This deep dive into one book may not be to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending these few hours with Birkerts and most of all with this giant of literature, Vladimir Nabokov.